Artists work with developers so both can thrive in Long Island City

Artists work with developers so both can thrive in Long Island City
By Kevin Zimmerman

While strolling to her gallery space recently, Carolina Peñafiel experienced a slight existential crisis.

As she wandered over to 44th Road she noticed a slinky negligee hanging in a nearby building’s window.

For a moment she thought she had been transported to old Long Island City before the 50-story glass towers of condominiums sprang up around the neighborhood.

“Back in the day you didn’t know what you would see when you turned the corner,” Peñafiel said. “Sometimes you would walk in and there would be strippers hanging out in the hallway.”

The strippers and occasional prostitute have moved on and Peñafiel’s venture, Local Project, has changed addresses a couple of times over the past 16 years, but its mission has remained the same: providing artists with a place to create and show their work.

Peñafiel, who moved to New York from Chile when she was barely out of her teens, and Argentinian Sandro Darsin started Local Project in a loft that doubled as living space back in 2000.

The two recognized Long Island City artists want studios to make art and galleries to display it.

“Artists always have a need for a space,” she said. “We built this community that was always going. It was a structure that formed organically.”

With no formal art training Peñafiel found herself playing the role of part den mother, part museum curator and part community organizer.

Peñafiel discovered she had a knack for what she called the tedious work of filling in the seemingly endless reams of paperwork, including applications, requests for proposals and mission statements that were essential in creating and running a non-profit organization.

But then she quickly realized living and working in the same place made it hard to do much else.

She decided to take a break from it all.

So with Local Project on hiatus she opted to move in with her boyfriend in the Bronx. But after only a few months away from Queens, Peñafiel understood she needed Local Project in her life.

“I missed it so much,” she said. “Then a friend of my said space was available in the basement of the 5Pointz building. It was part of an area of the building rented out by a lady running a factory.”

Susan Peters offered Local Project a large room that was part of her space in the iconic graffiti mecca for $500 a month. Peters also told Peñafiel that Local Project could do whatever it wanted with the site.

This new spot was the first time Local Project needed to figure rent into its operating budget, but Peñafiel said it was important not to pass that expense onto to the artists.

Things rolled along for about four or five years with Local Project becoming more entrenched in the neighborhood and raising money through donations and renting out the space for other art shows and performances.

But then the building’s owner, Jerry Wolkoff, announced the structure was being torn down so his company could build condominiums.

“We got evicted,” Peñafiel said. “We never expected that.”

Peters, who was also forced out of 5Pointz, started to look for a new location that would also provide space for Local Project, Peñafiel said.

“She knows what we do to serve the community,” Peñafiel said. “She likes to help. It was very generous of her.”

The new location at 11-27 44th Road came with a substantial rent increase for Local Project, but Peñafiel said it also provided the best space her group has ever inhabited.

She was able to add a couple of micro-studios in the back for artists to lease. The spaces are small, she said, but they come with cheap rent.

Peñafiel sees these studios as a place for new artists to utilize while they toil to get their name and work out to a larger audience. Once that happens, Peñafiel said, they can decamp from Local Project, allowing someone else to rent the space.

“That is something that is happening right now,” Peñafiel said. “There is an artist who is moving out now that she has grown her network.”

And while development has helped bumped up rents to within striking distance of Chelsea prices, Peñafiel said there will always be room for artists and glass towers to co-exist in Long Island City.

She points to Rockrose Development Corp. President Justin Elghanayan as someone who understands the need to maintain the area’s culture spaces. Rockrose provided the LIC Arts Open—an annual event when artists open their studios to the public and makeshift galleries spring up around the area—with space and money after the organizers asked, Peñafiel said.

“Developers aren’t all evil,” Peñafiel said.

Many of LIC’s developers receive the greenlight on their plans after agreeing to include amenities for residents, like schools, retail and even artistic spaces. So if someone is interested in adding a gallery to their building, Peñafiel hopes they think of Local Project first.

“We have been here a long time and understand the needs of the community,” she said. “I hope if a developer is going to provide cultural space, they come to us. It would be nice if it was given to locals.”

Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimmerman@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4541.